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|December 22, 1999||atimes.com|
| Southeast Asia |
Islamic rulers make the right noises in Malaysia's Terengganu
By Anil Netto
PENANG, Malaysia - Malaysia's opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) began its rule in its newly won north-eastern state of Terengganu on the wrong foot, but these days it is winning points among non-Muslims across the country.
Indeed PAS, which also controls the state of Kelantan, has announced some bold moves to improve transparency and accountability that analysts say contrast starkly with the way the Barisan Nasional (BN), which is still in power at the federal level, does things.
For instance, the PAS government in Terengganu, which won the state from Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's ruling coalition in the November 29 poll, has decided to insist that state leaders declare their assets publicly.
This contrasts with the ruling coalition's policy of requiring state leaders to declare their assets merely to the respective state's chief minister. State chief ministers, along with federal cabinet ministers, only need to declare their assets to the prime minister and not to the public.
Terengganu now also has a ''hisbah'' (ombudsman) portfolio to enhance accountability and curb abuse of power. The hisbah is tasked to look into complaints made by the people and probe any abuse of power by the state government.
''These are things which the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and the federal government can learn from the new PAS Terengganu state government,'' said Democratic Action Party (DAP) chair Lim Kit Siang at a joint media conference last week with new Terengganu Chief Minister Abdul Hadi Awang.
But just a few days before that conference, it had looked like PAS needed to take some lessons in governance as well. After winning in Terengganu, one of the first actions undertaken by PAS there - apart from abolishing toll on a bridge - was to propose a religious-based tax or ''kharaj'' to be imposed on non-Muslim businesses.
The news drew a hail of protests from the country's pro-establishment mainstream media and non-Muslim groups, and even sparked criticism from the multi-ethnic but Chinese-based DAP, one of PAS's allies in the opposition Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front) coalition.
High-level talks between DAP chief Lim and Hadi, however, have apparently defused the furore. Hadi has since assured DAP leaders that kharaj would not be forced on non-Muslim businesses.
The dialogue between the DAP and PAS quickly won praise from other Barisan Alternatif partners. ''The dialogue will not only strengthen the Barisan Alternatif but will also benefit inter-ethnic and inter-religious ties between Malays and non-Malays and Muslims and non-Muslims,'' said Chandra Muzaffar, deputy president of the Parti Keadilan Nasional (National Justice Party) or keADILan.
The Barisan Alternatif had posed a strong challenge to the ruling coalition in the November election. PAS in fact emerged from the poll with the most seats among the opposition, winning 27 out of the 193 slots in Parliament. DAP won 10 while keADILan took five seats.
But political analysts say it is particularly telling that the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the dominant party in the Barisan Nasional, suffered heavy losses in the north-eastern Islamic heartland, where ethnic Malays dominate in states like Kelantan and Terengganu.
While Terengganu is among the poorest states in Malaysia, it is a prize political catch not least because of its sizeable oil and gas reserves. By winning there, PAS has access to at least 500 million ringgit ($131.6 million) annually from petroleum royalties. This is largely why political observers say that aside from how it treats non-Muslims, PAS-led state governments are bound to be judged on how they resolve the unequal distribution of wealth. It was the poor who voted so overwhelmingly for change.
Syed Husin Ali, president of another Barisan Alternatif member, the Parti Rakyat Malaysia (Malaysian People's Party), has already struck a note of caution while acknowledging the positive changes in Terengganu. He praised the agreement reached between the DAP and PAS in Terengganu and the concessions being made to accommodate both Muslims and non-Muslims there.
But he added, ''[Let] us not forget one thing. There is equal need to be concerned about the common people at large, especially the socio-economically weak, disadvantaged, exploited and discriminated who come from the lower and middle classes of various groups that cut across race and religion.''
Meanwhile, though, the people of Terengganu appear to have much to look forward to. For one, Hadi has asked government officials and the media to tell the truth to the leaders no matter how painful it may be. He has said that exposing wrongdoings is a religious duty and that concealing evil is a sin.
For another, in line with the Barisan Alternatif's joint manifesto, Terengganu's state government will be extending maternity leave to 90 days. To strengthen the family as the basic unit in society, it is cutting the previous five-and-a-half-day workweek to five days.
Emulating the example set by fellow PAS chief minister Nik Aziz Nik Mat in neighboring Kelantan, Hadi has also opted not to stay at the chief minister's official residence but will continue to live in his private home. And he will not be taking the housing allowance that comes with his new position.
There has been more good news for Terengganu's non-Muslims. In a move aimed to appease those angered by the kharaj proposal, Hadi has said that pig rearing and slaughtering, banned in Terengganu for the past 10 years, would be allowed again. While Muslims consider pork unclean, it is widely used in Chinese dishes.
Hadi - perceived as one of the more hard-line leaders in PAS - also announced that the state government would favorably consider applications by non-Muslims to build new temples and churches. In the Barisan Nasional-controlled states, strict guidelines govern the building of non-Muslim places of worship, especially in Muslim-majority areas.
Hadi added that representatives of the Chinese community would be given more seats in various municipal and district councils.
The accommodation shown by the PAS government in Terengganu is praiseworthy, observed Chandra. ''PAS's attitude is, needless, to say, in harmony with Islamic teachings,'' he added, pointing out that it is a fundamental tenet of the Islamic faith that the rights of non-Muslims living in the midst of a Muslim community should be protected.
The new line of connection between Lim and Hadi and the concessions to non-Muslims in Terengganu are likely to ease pressure on the DAP to sever ties with PAS, which has quite divergent policies - not least in the area of religion. It also means that the Barisan Alternatif, which at one point looked like it would not survive the rift between the two parties, has been given a new lease of life.
(Inter Press Service)
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